Federal Hiring of People with Disabilities? Looking Critically

ManinWheelchairatDesk - DJ Schimmel by everyplace (from flickr)It has been great these last few weeks as more and more guest bloggers are choosing to offer their insights and experience through Day in Washington to  ensure YOU get the best information possible.  These are Washington DC insiders with unique knowledge and expertise and I’m proud to be able to offer this blog as a resource and a way for those “inside the Beltway” to engage with the rest of the disability nation.  Today’s post comes from Jason Olsen, a colleague with many years experience within the Federal sector.  He has worked in several agencies including the Department of Labor and Social Security.  The post below is his breakdown of the President’s  Executive Order 13548 (EO) and call for the hiring of 100,000 new employees with disabilities.  After examining the language of the EO, his goal is to tell us what is REALLY going on and what this means to people with disabilities.

On July 26, 2010, when the White House issued a Press Release that the Federal Government was going to be hiring 100,000 people with disabilities, many people with significant disabilities rejoiced. The belief was that the government was finally going to become the model employer; that it would break down some of the highest walls of discrimination that still exist – barriers to equal employment for people with disabilities.

However,  implementation of these plans may be harder than you might think. In the new Executive Order 13548, the President gave the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) the lead role in designing model recruitment and hiring strategies for agencies seeking to increase their employment of people with disabilities and to develop mandatory training programs for both human resources personnel and hiring managers on the employment of individuals with disabilities. Although this language sounds neutral, human resources personnel and hiring managers are often relegated to simply handling the paperwork of bringing a person on board after that person has been selected.

Let me explain.  Most people with disabilities obtain their Federal jobs through Schedule A (properly called “Schedule A Appointment Authority).  When Schedule A is being used, the talented individual with a disability can be (and usually is) identified by the staff they regularly work with (supervisors, support staff, team teaders, executive officers etc.).  HR personnel and hiring managers (Remember, the ones who would be receiving all the specialized training?) may not be close enough to ever be able to identify a good intern (who may also have a disability) or be integrated enough into the local disability community to identify potential qualified staff.  With this in mind, training only HR Personnel may leave out other personnel who are critical in the process of finding and developing the talent pool of potential employees with disabilities.

Now, let me also point out one of the other major benefits of utilizing Schedule A – the federal agency can hire an individual without having to place a job posting on USAJOBS.gov. Thus, Schedule A eliminates the time it takes to create the posting, the time for people to apply for the positions, and the time it takes to sort through hundreds of resumes. It is designed to eliminate the delays that standard methods of hiring impose.  Let's remember that it isn't that people with disabilities can't compete with their non-disabled counterparts, most often the skill sets and knowledge are equal. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that when an HR professional or hiring manager has the choice between a qualified individual with a disability and a qualified individual without a disability theywill more often choose the individual without the disability.

The second portion of the Executive Order states that within 120 days guidelines would be issued to agencies for them to develop their agency specific plans for recruiting people with disabilities and then send them to OPM for review (if you are keeping track that means March 8, 2011). OPM quickly created a rather impressive Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies which lays out exactly what each agency's plans need to contain.  This guidance plainly and unequivocally states that it is to be used to design model recruitment and hiring strategies for agencies to facilitate their employment of people with disabilities and that it provides recruitment, hiring, and retention strategies. But before we get too far into this guidance lets finish the evaluation of Executive Order 13548 itself  .

The next portion of the EO is particularly interesting and one that is actually beneficial for the disability community as a whole.  This section states that agency plans will be subject to approval by the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and that it must, must, must, (okay, the actually EO doesn't repeat must quite as much but the emphasis is very clear): include performance targets and numerical goals for employment of individuals with disabilities and sub-goals for employment of individuals with targeted disabilities.

Why is this  important? For the first time, agencies are going to be held accountable for the targets that they propose and the plans that they submit must be of good enough quality to pass review by OPM. There  will also be a Senior Official named for each agency;  this person will be held responsible if the agencies attempts succeed or fail. However, let me add a caution – OPM does not state clearly what will happen if the plans are unsatisfactory, or if the plans will still be accepted if not all portions of the guidance that were issued are fully addressed in an agency's plans.  Something to watch for in the future.

Another positive point of this Executive Order is that it urges agencies to increase use of the Federal Government’s Schedule A excepted service hiring authority for persons with disabilities and increase participation of individuals with disabilities in internships, fellowships, and training and mentoring programs.   In addition to greater use of Schedule A, plainly put, this language focuses on inclusion of people with disabilities into already established programs instead of setting up some sort of special training program. OPM will track whether or not these efforts are successful and a report will be made to the President. A much better plan that just issuing guidance and moving on.

The final portion of the EO focuses on retention. OPM will identify and assist agencies in implementing strategies for retaining Federal workers with disabilities in Federal employment including, but not limited to, training, the use of centralized funds to provide reasonable accommodations, increasing access to appropriate accessible technologies, and ensuring the accessibility of physical and virtual workspaces.

In some ways, though,  what bothers me the most is that it doesn't focus nearly enough on retention. In almost any job there are two things that keep people committed to their work. Promotions and money. Everyone wants to be valued as an employee and those two elements are the primary ways our contributions can be measured.  However, neither of those is fully addressed by this EO. This is somewhat disappointing when you take into account the report from the National Council on Disabilities entitled Federal Employment of People with Disabilities from March 31, 2009 that states that;

 €¢ Supervisors. In FY 2007, employees with targeted disabilities made up:
                              0.49 percent of the 50,038 first-level managers (GS-12 level or below);
                              0.49 percent of the 65,792 mid-level managers (GS-13 or GS-14); and
                              0.43 percent of the 38,837 senior-level managers (GS-15 or Senior Executive Service).6

€¢ Senior Executive Service. The Senior Executive Service (SES) is a separate personnel system covering a majority of the top managerial, supervisory, and policymaking positions in the executive branch. In FY 2007, the SES had 7,720 members; only 35 (0.45 percent) were people with targeted disabilities.7 Government-wide, the representation of career SES members reporting targeted disabilities actually declined from 0.52 percent in FY 2000 to 0.44 percent in FY 2007.8

Yet, EO 13548 does not address these compensations. When you consider that fact that less than one half of 1% of people with targeted disabilities are welcomed into the upper echelon of the management structure, the omission of a method to improve this is disheartening. Without the conglomeration of these and other issues being addressed there is the fear that EO 13548 will go the same way as EO 13613 (issued July 26, 2000) by then-President Bill Clinton, calling for an additional 100,000 individuals with disabilities to be employed by the Federal Government over 5 years.

Is this a new beginning or history repeating itself?

-Jason Olsen

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